Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus in Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the Twelve Titans. In Greek myth, she is the personification of memory. Zeus lay with Mnemosyne nine nights and bore the Nine Muses. She is also said to be the inventor of words.

Mnemosyne is also the name of one of the five rivers flowing through Hades. After their deaths, initiates of the Greek mystery religions were encouraged to drink from the Mnemosyne instead of the Lethe (forgetfulness), probably so that, after they were reincarnated, they would remember their past lives.

Plato taught that the world of Ideas is the true reality, and that appearances and particulars are relatively unreal. The purpose of human life, in his estimation, is for souls to participate in this realm of Ideas. Basically, the soul becomes more intelligible by focusing on imperceptibles (the Forms) instead of constantly concentrating on the world of perceptibles (this world, matter, literal reality).

I would add that the realm of Ideas includes metaphor, images, dreams, myths, etc. In my thinking, these have more durable substance than perceptibles. So, I suppose I am saying that Soul is fashioned as one learns to pay attention to Imperceptibles.

Memory is the means by which Soul can join itself to matter and become more intelligible, thus having the ability to walk unfettered in the world of Ideas. Remember, this is all metaphorical. Soul is not a literal substance that sits in the pineal gland, as Descartes claimed.

Plato believed that memory is

that power by which the soul is enabled to profer in some future period, some former energy: and the energy of this power is reminiscence. Now the very essence of intellect is energy, and all its perceptions are nothing more than visions of itself: but all the energies of soul are derived from intellectual illumination. Hence we may compare intellect to light, the soul to an eye, and Memory to that power by which the soul is converted to the light, and actually perceives. But the visions of the soul participate of greater or less reality, in proportion as she is more or less intimately converted to the divine light of intellect. In the multitude of mankind, indeed, the eye of the soul perceives with but a glimmering light, being accustomed to look constantly abroad into the dark and fluctuating regions of sense, and to contemplate solely the shadowy forms of imagination; in consequence of which, their memory is solely employed on objects obscure, external, and low. But in the few who have purified that organ of the soul, by which truth can alone be perceived, and which, as Plato says, is better worth saving than ten thousand eyes of sense; who have disengaged this eye from that barbaric clay with which it was buried, and have by this means turned it as from some benighted day, to bright and real vision: in these, Souls, Memory and Reminiscense, are entirely conversant with those divine ideal forms, so familiar to the soul before her immersion in body (From a footnote to The Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792)

I leave you with this poem to Mnemosyne:

Help me Mnemosyne, thou Titaness
Thou ancient one, daughter of Heaven and Earth,
Mother of the Muses, who inhabit not
In flowery mount or crystal spring, but in
The dark and confin’d cavern of the skull –
O Memory, who holds the thread that links
My modern mind to those of ancient days.

– A.S. Byatt, Possession

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